Friday, November 20, 2015

A LITTLE MUD TRACK – The story of the East Coast Road

Celebrities in sleek cars, hiding behind illegally darkened windows; wobbling cyclists; suicidal motorcyclists; erratic pedestrians constantly oozing onto the carriageway; homicidal “share autos” convulsing to the beat of a beastly drummer that only their drivers can hear; behemoth buses bullying for non-existent space...

An endless succession of commercial establishments… by turns big and small, by turns pretentious or unassuming. Swank followed by sordid followed by stinking followed by stylish.

Astronomical prices per square foot of “Land”.

A few sleepy fishing hamlets separated by vast stretches of casuarina groves and tenuously connected to each other by back roads, have today coalesced like a humongous, toxic amoeba and transformed into one of the most sought after parcels of real estate south of the Vindhyas - the Chennai section of the East Coast Road.

This road is now The aspirational address for every real estate shark, fixer, shop keeper, star, starlet, retired civil servant, celebrity sportsperson, non-resident Indian, expatriate, CEO and everybody else in between.

What is the story of this stretch of road? When and how did it come to be?

This bustling 4 lane highway was, till the 1960’s, just a little red mud track that wound lazily southwards from Adyar, roughly following the contours of the coastline, till the backwaters of Muttukadu. And that’s all it was. 

There was nothing of “interest” on this road, except for the people living in the few fishing villages that dotted the coast.

By most accounts gleaned from old timers who remember, the earliest establishment on this lonely little track was Dr. Dhairyam’s “mental institution” in Vettuvankeni. Locals used to then joke that this Dr. Dhairyam (Dr. Courage in Tamil) must have been a “dhairyasaali”, a courageous man indeed to come and establish his clinic on such a desolate stretch!

Then, in 1965, the Cholamandal Artist’s Village started slowly taking shape with an initial purchase of half an acre in Injambakkam. Around the same time (1967), VGP bought several acres just down the mud track, in the same neighborhood.

The end of the line for the little mud track, though, remained the backwaters of Muttukadu. If you wanted to proceed further south on that mud track, to say Mahabalipuram or beyond, you would have had to take a boat across the backwaters and then proceed by whatever means of transport were available on the other side of the lagoon.

But what about the people who wanted to come from the southern edge of Madras to Dr. Dhairyam’s clinic or to Cholamandal or to VGP or to any of the villages along the coast up until the backwaters?

Till 1965, there were no buses on this route. Many villagers just walked. Or they hired a jutka (covered horse drawn cart) from the jutka stand under a large banyan tree that stood where the Adyar Standard Chartered Bank building stands today. Hiring an entire jutka for the trip from Adyar to Injambakkam cost Rs.3 and 5 to 6 people could travel in the jutka for that price.

People who used to travel regularly on this stretch in those days say that if you missed having your chai at Hotel Coronet (established in 1955) your only alternative was a tiny teashop in Palavakkam.

Indira Nagar and Besant Nagar did not exist as yet then. The layouts for these neighborhoods were just being finalized by the government.

Although a foundation stone for an Thiruvanmiyur - Muttukadu Road was laid as early as in 1957, the work proceeded in fits and starts and was completed only around 1970.

However, the end of the line for this little mud track still remained the backwaters of Muttukadu. Then, finally in 1972, the Muttukadu Bridge was built, setting the stage for what would eventually become an almost 700 KM highway stretching from Chennai to Tuticorin.

The first bus service on this road was introduced in 1966 – route 19C from Parry’s to Muttukadu. The commuters were mainly fisher folk who used the bus service to transport their catch to the city. There is at least one corroborated story of a young Cholamandal artist’s crisp kurta suddenly getting drenched with foul smelling, fishy water sloshing down from a basket tied to the roof of the bus.

Slowly, over the years, certain establishments on this stretch became weekend destinations for the city folk: Cholamandal Artists’ Village, Silver Sands Resort (est., 1968), VGP Golden Beach (est., 1975), Taj Fisherman’s Cove and the Crocodile Bank (both established in 1976).

Through the 1980’s, the ECR was still a narrow, mostly sleepy road. There were vast casuarina groves abutting the road and rolling up to the sands of the beach. The people who moved from the city into these hamlets in those years were somehow “different”…people who had chosen a “different” lifestyle. This corner of the map was still more or less the back of nowhere.

All that changed with India’s big leap in the 90’s into the brave new world of open economics. Development on this once sleepy little red mud track suddenly became ceaseless, frenetic and unplanned. But the resulting permanent state of chaos has not stopped the masses from clamoring evermore for a piece of this prime real estate.

After a massive upgrade and conversion into a toll road in 2002, efforts are again on to widen the highway. How this project will eventually pan out remains to be seen.

Whatever shape the expanded highway might take, one thing is for sure: Today, the ECR is as much a part of the Chennai narrative as a Boat Club Road or a T. Nagar or a Parry’s Corner.

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